The PelicanWeb's Journal of Sustainable Development

Research Digest on Integral Human Development,
Spirituality, Solidarity, Sustainability, Democracy, Technology, Nonviolence

Vol. 5, No. 12, December 2009
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor

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Symbolic Poverty

Mats Winther
This article was originally published on
Mats Winther's Home Page,
14 October 2009

Abstract: The article tries to pinpoint a collective complex unconsciously affecting all people belonging to the Western cultural sphere. The capacity to relate symbolically with life has become lost. Symbolic poverty implicates a serious deficiency of spiritual relatedness. The lack thereof is being compensated with many strange preconceptions, partly deriving from everyday indoctrination. Most conspicuous is the inability to accept suffering, and the reluctance of enduring it. Western man is losing his capacity of relating symbolically to the dark side of existence, by way of ritual conceptions. Against this, a new attitude toward evil and the destructive forces is proposed. The article hopes to challenge the reader's preconceptions, many of which have been drunk in with the mother's milk.

Keywords: suffering, evil, symbol, ritual, welfare state, Earth-Mother, Chuang-tzu.


General consciousness in the Western world has become ensnared by an idealistic and naive form of morality. Conscious moral standards are today conditioned by an unconscious collective complex which can be characterized as a grand mother-myth. Central to current political consciousness is the paragon of a world-encompassing benign community, including notions such as democracy, welfare, and market economy for all the world's inhabitants. A future global society is envisioned as a good mother and a safe garden for its children. Accordingly, all people of the earth have the right to the boons of the welfare state. The other side of existence, the dark forces of unconscious nature, including the unpredictable "power of the divine", have today been shut out from collective consciousness. It is being replaced by material goods and chattels, especially. Accordingly, people have become very materialistic, very focused on material welfare, rather than spiritual growth. This is the expression of a resurgent mother complex.

The missing feminine

M-L von Franz (1980) says:

This pronounced lack of a feminine personification of the unconscious has therefore been compensated by the radical materialism which has gradually taken hold of the Christian tradition. One could say that practically no religion began with such a highly one-sided spiritual accent and has landed - if you think of Communism as the end form of Christian theology - in such an absolutely one-sided materialistic aspect. The swing from one to the other is one of the most striking phenomena we know of in the history of religion; it is due to the fact that from the beginning there was an unawareness, an unbalanced attitude towards the problem of the feminine goddess and therefore of matter, because the feminine Godhead in all religions is always projected into and linked up with the concept of matter.

Only yesterday I had in my hand - this is in the nature of a digression, but quite an interesting one - a book by Hans Marti entitled 'Urbild und Verfassung', which could be translated as "Archetype and Constitution." Marti shows that since man originally conceived of the constitution of a democratic state - he is mainly concerned with the Swiss Constitution - a secret switch has taken place from the patriarchal concept of the State (the juridical State, the State being a legal concept, a kind of father spirit) to what he calls the Welfare State. Swiss democracy in its beginnings, let us say until the last fifty years, was chiefly administered by a Club consisting of men - you know women in Switzerland still cannot vote - and the basis of the Constitution was a certain number of laws, the main object of which was to guarantee the freedom of the individual, freedom of religion, freedom of possession, and so on.

Into this slowly crept, as Marti very beautifully demonstrates, another idea, namely that of the Welfare State, a mother archetype where the State has to care for the health of the people, their material welfare, old age pensions, etc. Marti points out very clearly that this is a switch, that the State is no longer the father but has become the mother, and as such interested in the physical welfare of her children. He shows how, according to Swiss law, the State now has the right to impose certain regulations on the possession of land, in order to protect agricultural areas, for instance.

Some years ago the State assumed control over water rights - water is a feminine symbol - in order to protect people since the water gets so dirty and unwholesome, and slowly it has acquired the right to issue laws to fight epidemics. If, for instance, there is some kind of plague, or rabies, then the State can issue regulations which did not previously exist. Formerly mankind was not so interested in the people's physical and material welfare. If they died of the plague or were bitten by mad dogs, that was just a part of life and not important; the emphasis was on spiritual freedom while physical welfare was rather neglected. Over the last fifty or sixty years physical welfare has gradually become an important concern of the State, and with that it has by degrees become more and more the carrier of the projection of the mother, and less so of the father image. We are slowly and without noticing it gliding into a matriarchal situation.

Marti shows very clearly how certain emotional factors are unconsciously at play, that the people conceive of the State in some vague archetypal form and from that standpoint vote for certain laws. But what seems to be self-evident, i.e., that the State should look after its children, is really the projection of the mother image, and that is not self-evident. He ends his book very intelligently by saying that we should become conscious of what we are projecting onto the State and begin with a real Auseinandersetzung, or confrontation, and not change our laws by just projecting a mother image.

This book describes a small aspect of a slow turn which on a large scale has happened in the whole Christian civilization and which one could call a secret unobtrusive return to matriarchy and materialism. This enantiodromia has to do with the fact that the Judaeo-Christian religion did not face the archetype of the mother consciously enough. It had to a certain extent excluded the question. It is well known, also, that when Pope Pius XII declared the assumptio Maria his conscious aim was to hit Communistic materialism by elevating, so to speak, a symbol of matter in the Catholic Church, so as to take the wind out of the Communists' sails. There is a much deeper implication, but that was his conscious idea, namely that the only way to fight the materialistic aspect would be by raising to a higher position the symbol of the feminine Godhead, and with it matter. Since it is the Virgin Mary's body which is raised to Heaven, emphasis is on the physical material aspect. (von Franz, 1980, pp.212-15)

Since the seventies, when von Franz made this interview, things have gone worse. Today the Western welfare states have taken upon themselves the yoke of all the hapless people of the earth, who must now have their provision for free. To my country - Sweden - refugees arrive en masse. However, these people often end up in passivity, spending their time watching cable TV from their home country, while waiting for the next social allowance by post. I fear that such a misguided humanitarianism can create the danger of a blackhearted compensation from the unconscious. A backlash, on lines of racialist or Übermensch ideals, could result in a total unconcern for the well-being and lives of people.

Toleration of suffering

Should we begin to better accept suffering as an integral part of earthly life, then we would lessen the momentum of the unconscious compensatory reactions. By the rules of an age-old psychic economy, suffering is forced upon people to be carried vicariously. People who are not mature enough to carry their own suffering, at heart, will inevitably force it upon others. Collective victimization, well-known from history, again and again comes to expression in a feverish search after sacrificial victims. History tends to repeat itself, and in times of distress, such outbreaks tend to occur more often.

To grow and mature, and to leave an inferior state of consciousness behind, remains a path of hardship. It is implied in a well-known saying: "Come, take up the cross, and follow me" (Mark 10:21). Unconscious suffering on part of the masses is normally projected on others, or carried vicariously by other people. Conscious suffering, on the other hand, or a conscious acceptance of suffering, can put an end to the process of sin transference[1]. Judging from history, if the Western state isn't out to relieve the world of all mankind's afflictions and poverty, then it is equally determined to create colossal suffering in humankind. This pendulum movement, to and fro, of unconscious obsession with suffering, must cease.

While many a young person these days is lacking in personal identity, he can acquire an identity by becoming a welfare idealist. He or she then belongs to the 'Gutmenschen', who do this to feel good. Much of today's concern for others is not rooted in instinct or in heartfelt motives, especially if it involves wholly unrelated people living on another continent (empathy is what you feel for the human being, or the cat, whom you are living with every day). Instead it builds on a moralistic ideology, which makes people feel that they are involved in something meaningful and larger than themselves, much like how the Communist pioneer felt, in the heydays of USSR.

The Earth-Mother

In 'The Feminine in Fairytales' Marie-Louise von Franz argues that the crux of Western consciousness is the total disregard of the dark side of the feminine principle, the darkness of the Earth-Mother, in fairytales portrayed as the witch Baba Yaga, for instance. The repression of dark nature creates an inability to accept suffering as an integral part of life, and it also makes us deny the inner darkness of our own nature. She says:

The whole of natural life is based on murder. That is a terrible thing to realize, but, at the same time, if one is not very morbid by nature, such a realization brings acceptance and, strangely, the wish to live and the desire to accept one's guilt individually, for that is the guilt of living and living is guilt, in a certain sense. The realization of destruction and the wish to live are very closely connected. (1993, p.205)

According to von Franz "[Jesus] warned against the all too human tendency, the inflation actually, to pursue shadow problems which are not one's own. One should say, 'I have done my human best and have not succeeded, but have been shown my own limitations.' " (p.199) Von Franz is here referring to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus urges his disciples not to resist evil (Matthew 05:39). But pursuing "shadow problems which are not our own" are exactly what we are doing today, on a megalomaniacal scale. She explains:

Jung once went so far as to say that goodness which is beyond instinctiveness is no longer good, and wickedness which is anti-instinctual cannot succeed either. If I try to be better than my instincts permit, I cease to do good. If I want to do evil in order to survive, this is only possible as long as my instinct goes with it. If I do more evil than my instinct allows, then I destroy myself. Instinct, or the animal, is the final judge, for that is what gives my good or evil intentions the right measure. (p.208)

But how, then, can evil be countered? Von Franz continues:

Once at a Fastnacht, Jung made up a wonderful verse about the poisonous dragon, to the effect that if a poisonous dragon appeared, one should not get upset, for the dragon had only forgotten his own fate: that he had to eat himself - the uroboros! So you must just remind the dragon of his duty, and he will say, "Oh, yes," and will eat himself up! But you have to remind him, that is, bring a little bit of consciousness into the situation. It doesn't mean letting things go, but putting a little drop of consciousness in and then retiring. (p.204)

Von Franz also discusses the advanced subject of the healing effect of the unconscious archetype, in terms of synchronicity:

The psychological analogy [with alchemy] seems to have to do with the fact that when one succeeds consciously and positively to relate to an archetypal constellation, there is a widespread effect. If the rainmaker, or the medicine man, gets in touch in the right way with the powers of the Beyond, rain falls over the whole country. Confucius said that if the noble man sits in his room and has the right thoughts and writes down the right things, he is heard a thousand miles around. The Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu always comments on the point that as long as the ruler of the country tries to do the right thing, actively making good or bad laws, the empire will get worse and worse. If, on the contrary, he retires and gets right inwardly, then the problems of the empire are solved by themselves too. (p.179)

Moral infantilism

In the present day, inflationary and banal conscious values are contributing to the reinstatement of the Great Mother (Magna Mater), in the shape of out-and-out materialism ('mater' = mother). An archaic mother-myth is filling up the empty space created by the poverty of symbols. Under its influence the individual is likely to develop into a state of moral infantilism. In today's Western world, along with archaisms and childish ways of human relations, a primitive matriarchal conception is unconsciously on the rise.

It seems as if the seemingly benign mother goddess, in accordance with her indiscriminate and enveloping nature, accepts a manifoldness of thoughtways, and gathers everyone under her auspices. Inclusiveness, multiculturalism, and multiethnicity, have become the catchwords of the present era. The present situation forms a glaring contrast to traditional society. Joseph Campbell (1973) says:

In earlier times, when the relevant social unit was the tribe, the religious sect, a nation, or even a civilization, it was possible for the local mythology in service to that unit to represent all those beyond its bounds as inferior, and its own local inflection of the universal human heritage of mythological imagery either as the one, the true and sanctified, or at least as the noblest and supreme. And it was in those times beneficial to the order of the group that its young should be trained to respond positively to their own system of tribal signals and negatively to all others, to reserve their love for at home and to project their hatreds outward. Today, however, we are the passengers, all, of this single space-ship Earth (as Buckminster Fuller once termed it), hurtling at a prodigious rate through the vast night of space, going nowhere. And are we to allow a hijacker aboard?

Nietzsche, nearly a century ago, already named our period the Age of Comparisons. There were formerly horizons within which people lived and thought and mythologized. There are now no more horizons. And with the dissolution of horizons we have experienced and are experiencing collisions, terrific collisions, not only of peoples but also of their mythologies. It is as when dividing panels are withdrawn from between chambers of very hot and very cold airs: there is a rush of these forces together. And so we are right now in an extremely perilous age of thunder, lightning, and hurricanes all around.[...]

And now, among the powers that are here being catapulted together, to collide and to explode, not the least important (it can be safely said) are the ancient mythological traditions, chiefly of India and the Far East, that are now entering in force into the fields of our European heritage, and vice versa, ideals of rational, progressive humanism and democracy that are now flooding into Asia. Add the general bearing of the knowledges of modern science on the archaic beliefs incorporated in all traditional systems, and I think we shall agree that there is a considerable sifting task to be resolved here, if anything of the wisdom-lore that has sustained our species to the present is to be retained and intelligently handed on to whatever times are to come. (Campbell, 1973, pp.262-3)

Non-reflecting tolerance

The "sifting task" depends on a mature and discriminative consciousness, capable of making distinctions, something which enables it to sift the wheat from the chaff. Such a task cannot be accomplished by a naive and indiscriminate type of moral consciousness, characteristic of the matriarchal sentiment. Sadly, in the present day, this way of thinking commands the discourse, at least in my country. Against this, philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1965) has argued that indiscriminate tolerance can have a markedly destructive effect, on democracy as well as in the developing individual:

This sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested. [...] Tolerance is turned from an active into a passive state, from practice to non-practice: laissez-faire the constituted authorities.[...]
Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence. The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, [...] the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandising, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives. (1965, pp.82-3)[...]

But even the all-inclusive character of liberalist tolerance was, at least in theory, based on the proposition that men were (potential) individuals who could learn to hear and see and feel by themselves, to develop their own thoughts, to grasp their true interests and rights and capabilities, also against established authority and opinion. This was the rationale of free speech and assembly. Universal toleration becomes questionable when its rationale no longer prevails, when tolerance is administered to manipulated and indoctrinated individuals who parrot, as their own, the opinion of their masters, for whom heteronomy has become autonomy.
The telos of tolerance is truth. It is clear from the historical record that the authentic spokesmen of tolerance had more and other truth in mind than that of propositional logic and academic theory (p.90)[...]

Moreover, in endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood. This pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, all contesting opinions must be submitted to "the people" for its deliberation and choice. But I have already suggested that the democratic argument implies a necessary condition, namely, that the people must be capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge, that they must have access to authentic information, and that, on this basis, the evaluation must be the result of autonomous thought.
In the contemporary period, the democratic argument for abstract tolerance tends to be invalidated by the invalidation of the democratic process itself. The liberating force of democracy was the chance it gave to effective dissent, on the individual as well as social scale, its openness to qualitatively different forms of government, of culture, education, work - of the human existence in general.[...]

But with the concentration of economic and political power and the integration of opposites in a society, which uses technology as an instrument of domination, effective dissent is blocked where it could freely emerge: in the formation of opinion, in information and communication, in speech and assembly. Under the rule of monopolistic media - themselves the mere instruments of economic and political power - a mentality is created for which right and wrong, true and false are predefined wherever they affect the vital interests of the society. (pp.94-5)
Impartiality to the utmost, equal treatment of competing and conflicting issues is indeed a basic requirement for decision-making in the democratic process - it is an equally basic requirement for defining the limits of tolerance. But in a democracy with totalitarian organization, objectivity may fulfill a very different function, namely, to foster a mental attitude which tends to obliterate the difference between true and false, information and indoctrination, right and wrong.[...]

The result is a neutralization of opposites, a neutralization, however, which takes place on the firm grounds of the structural limitation of tolerance and within a preformed mentality.[...]

If objectivity has anything to do with truth, and if truth is more than a matter of logic and science, then this kind of objectivity is false, and this kind of tolerance inhuman. And if it is necessary to break the established universe of meaning (and the practice enclosed in this universe) in order to enable man to find out what is true and false, this deceptive impartiality would have to be abandoned. (Marcuse, 1965, pp.97-8)

Relativism, cultural and ethical, once threatened ancient Greek society with disintegration and moral dissolution. In those days, Platonic thinking managed to put a curb on the destructive development. Today, a comparable relativistic thinking has gained a strong momentum thanks to an underlying dependency on the mother, expressing itself in banal materialistic convictions. In the individual, this takes the expression of a moral infantilism that is now having a corruptive influence on the democratic societies. Needless to say, our democracies are dependent on mature and autonomous individuals, innovative citizens who are capable of thinking for themselves. The forging of personality, within the social context, is a very important issue. Marcuse also highlights the effects of a "repressive tolerance" on the identity-seeking consciousness of the individual:

From the permissiveness of all sorts of license to the child, to the constant psychological concern with the personal problems of the student, a large-scale movement is under way against the evils of repression and the need for being oneself. Frequently brushed aside is the question as to what has to be repressed before one can be a self, oneself. The individual potential is first a negative one, a portion of the potential of his society: of aggression, guilt feeling, ignorance, resentment, cruelty which vitiate his life instincts. If the identity of the self is to be more than the immediate realization of this potential (undesirable for the individual as human being), then it requires repression and sublimation, conscious transformation. This process involves at each stage (to use the ridiculed terms which here reveal their succinct concreteness) the negation of the negation, mediation of the immediate, and identity is no more and no less than this process. "Alienation" is the constant and essential element of identity, the objective side of the subject - and not, as it is made to appear today, a disease, a psychological condition. Freud well knew the difference between progressive and regressive, liberating and destructive repression. (Marcuse, 1965, p.115)

Symbolic poverty

As von Franz has pointed out, a weakness in the symbol-forming process, within the realm of the feminine spirit and dark nature, especially, has backfired and caused materialism and fixation on welfare. The motherly sentiment incorporates such notions as safety and material comfort. An inability to relate consciously, via the symbolic function, with the spirit of the feminine, forces the same to enter through the backdoor, as it were, by the route of the unconscious collective complex. This is the reason why it assumes such a vulgar and naive expression, and why the conscious tenets emerge as banal and empty, lacking both in analytical depth and heartfelt sincerity. As an overcompensation of banal content it appears like a materialistic religion is being emulated, containing tenets of faith: "safety, healthcare, democracy and material comfort, are blessings that, by birthright, belong to all inhabitants on earth."

This is a goodness which is not anchored in instinct and true warmheartedness, but produced from an empty overblown creed of consciousness, an ethics by decree, as it were. Secular society is, unconsciously and secretly, turning into a matriarchal religious society - unsimilar to the historical counterparts, but a vulgar and banal version - imbued as it is with archaic motherly sentiments. Orrin E. Klapp (1969), who diagnoses the condition as 'symbolic poverty', asks:

What is symbolic poverty? Not lack of factual information, but of kinds of symbols which make a person's life meaningful and interesting...[At] the nondiscursive level modern society suffers a more serious poverty of symbols, including a lack of: reassurance from the gestures of others (that one is loved, understood, needed, somebody special) - what Eric Berne calls "strokes"; ritual which gives a person a sense of himself and fills his life with valid sentiments; place symbols, the familiar world where one belongs, home; the voice of the past, a sense of contact with prior generations; psychological payoffs in recognition for work; and, above all, centering.[...]

Few, even among leaders of business, have personal reputations that amount to much; and, for almost all, loss of job by retirement or unemployment turns a person easily into "nobody." Above it all is the lack of mystique, of faith in something "more," so characteristic of secular society.[...]

From the standpoint of social policy, the nub of the matter is that we do not know how to design a context of human relations in the abundance of a mobile, modernistic, traditionless society which will provide the individual with nondiscursive symbols to give him an interesting life and satisfying identity.

This is the problem of banality. A person whose interactions lack psychological payoffs will find life unutterably boring. The success symbols, though he has them, will seem empty. Practical measures, such as economic progress, political reform, even welfare legislation, will seem irrelevant to him, because they do not deal with the real problem - of banality. He will, therefore, have a tendency to become a dropout or a deviant, turning to escapes or kicks for compensation.[...]

His argument might be as follows: If the social order denies me a feeling of integrity as a person, something is wrong with it; therefore, I have a right to go outside its codes to the extent necessary to find myself. Such a point of view divides people - not between haves and have-nots, or political parties - but between those who who feel dissatisfied with their identity and cheated by the social order - therefore searching, escaping unconventional, rebel, extremist - and those who are satisfied with their identities because the psychological payoffs are satisfactory to them.[...]

Surely one cannot resuscitate such symbols merely by shooting people full of information "about" such things. Factual, historical, technical, discursive information is next to irrelevant for the meaning of nondiscursive symbols. This is perhaps the predicament of our society: trying to replace dying nondiscursive symbols (some of which we call tradition, some of which we call human relations) by material comforts, technological efficiency and design, and impersonal information. (Klapp, 1969, pp. 317-23)

An inflated political consciousness

Symbolic poverty, I argue, goes hand in hand with an inflated consciousness. It depends on the way in which people cling to stale and bloodless values of consciousness. Consciousness is being overvalued, something which creates an inflation of the human ego. A most conspicuous example is the well-known political ambition that all forms of human suffering must be removed from the face of the earth. Such an exaggerated idealistic standpoint cannot bear with the dark side of existence, which is, ceremonially but not effectually, brushed aside and neglected. A most popular conscious agenda of today is the conceited notion that evil, in all its forms, can and will be conquered by the human endeavour. Hidden behind this notion is an unconscious rationale. An inflated, idealistic, conscious standpoint is really predicated on overcompensation, a defensive attempt at holding the dark forces of unconscious nature at bay.

We can observe a similar phenomenon at times of looming crisis. At the very point when things start to go bad, companies furnish their luxurious office buildings with fountains and hanging gardens, and executives are lavished with great bonuses. In this fashion, due to a compensatory tendency, conscious notions are inflated. By an almost religious logic, the entirety of the global community must needs be involved. All people have the "right" to all the boons of the welfare state and must henceforth be thoroughly relieved of suffering.

It is interesting to compare the current ideal with the Islamic state, and the Third Reich, where the doctrine of world dominion is equally central. Here, the ultimate goal is to achieve a comfortably controlled existence in the life of the subject, who is not expected to think for himself. A society of this kind is not unlike a protected Kindergarten where each and everybody is expected to lead a wholly automated life. Under such circumstances a person will never learn to grow up to become a psychologically independent individual. The tenets of consciousness are to rule uncontested, especially if they are formulated in a book such as the Quran. True and heartfelt expressions of unconscious nature, and of true spirituality, are being suppressed by a conscious rule which has become inflated, stale, and bloodless.


The Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu (4th century B.C.) was bitterly antagonistic to the strong society, in any form. He is a true fount of wisdom, yet his thinking contrasts strongly with the general frame of mind of today's Westerner. He sometimes tends to the extreme, but this makes his cogent points all the clearer. His thoughts are almost antithetical to today's celebrated notion of society as a good mother. Chuang-tzu's philosophy is a potent remedy for the upsurge of matriarchal sentiment and its close attendant, namely the inflationary conscious ideas and mores. From the chapter 'Broken Suitcases':

To guard yourself against thieves who slash open suitcases, rifle through bags and smash open boxes, one should strap the bags and lock them. The world at large knows that this shows wisdom. However, when a master thief comes, he simply picks up the suitcase, lifts the bag, carries off the box and runs away with them, his only concern being whether the straps and locks will hold! In such an instance, what seemed like wisdom on the part of the owner surely turns out to have been of use only to the master thief!

I will try to explain what I am saying. What the world at large calls a wise man, is he not really just someone who stores things up for the master thief? Likewise, isn't the one they call a sage just a guardian of the master thief's interests?

How do I know all this? Long ago in the state of Chi, all the little towns could see each other and the cockerels and dogs called to each other. Nets were cast and the land ploughed over an area of two thousand square miles. Within its four borders, ancestral temples were built and maintained and shrines to the land and the crops were built. Its villages and towns were well governed and everything was under the guidance of the sage. However, one morning Lord Tien Cheng killed the ruler and took his country. But was it just his country he took? He also took the wisdom of the laws of the state, created by the sages. So Lord Tien Cheng earned the title of thief and robber, but he was able to live out his days as secure as Yao or Shun had done. The smaller states dared not criticize him and the larger states did not dare attack. So for twelve generations his family ruled the state of Chi. Is this not an example of someone stealing the state of Chi and also taking the laws arising from the wisdom of the sages and using them to protect himself, although he was both robber and thief?

I will try to explain this. What the world at large calls someone of perfect knowledge, is this not in fact the person who stores up things for a great thief? Those commonly called sages, are they not responsible for securing things for the great thief?[...]

So it is that the sage brings little to the world but inflicts much harm.[...] When the sage is born, the great thief arises. Beat the sages and let the thieves and robbers go, then the world will be all right. When the rivers dry up, the valley is empty. When the hill is levelled, the pool is filled.

If the sage does not die, then great thieves will continue to arise. The more sages are brought forth to rule the world, the more this helps people like Robber Chih. Create weights and measures to judge by and people will steal by weight and measure; create balances and weights and people will steal by balances and weights; create contracts and legal agreements to inspire trust and people will steal by contracts and legal agreements; create benevolence and righteousness to ensure honesty and even in this instance benevolence and righteousness teach them to steal.

How do I know all this? This one steals a buckle and he is executed, that one steals a country and he becomes its ruler. Yet it is at the gates of rulers that benevolence and righteousness are professed. Surely this is a case of the wisdom of the sages, benevolence and righteousness being stolen? So people rush to become great robbers, to seize estates, stealing benevolence and righteousness, and taking all the profits of the weights and measures, balances and weights, contracts and legal arguments. Try to prevent them with promises of the trappings of power, they don't care. Threaten them with execution, and this doesn't stop them. For by profiting those like Robber Chih, whom none can stop, the sage has made a great mistake.

It is said, 'Just as you do not take the fish away from the deep waters, so the means of controlling a country should not be shown.' The sage is the means of control, so the world should not see him clearly.[...]
Ignore the behaviour of Tseng and Shih, shut the mouth of Yang and Mo, purge benevolence and righteousness, and the true Virtue of all under Heaven will display its mystic power. When people have true clear vision, no one in the world will be duped;[...]
Those such as Tseng, Shih, Yang, Mo, the musician Kuang, craftsman Chui or Li Chu showed off their virtue on the outside. They made the world aflame with admiration and so confused the world: a way of proceeding which was pointless.[...] This is the fault of those in authority who search for good knowledge. If those in authority search for knowledge, but without the Tao, everything under Heaven will be in terrible confusion. (Chuang-tzu, 1996, pp.76-80)

A decaying society

A strong society is being built, whether it's a welfare society or a dictatorship, by resort to doctrinal concepts, detailed legislation, social engineering, etc. But ambitious efforts only contribute to society's demise. Sweden's strong welfare system is today undergoing decay. A perfectly bizarre example is the way in which people, especially immigrants from Africa's horn, are making use of their right to social allowance and child benefit in order to give birth to very many children, sometimes as many as fifteen. People from this part of the world have their roots in a matriarchal culture, meaning that motherhood, in itself, and to beget many children, is regarded as model conduct. To have many children, combined with little or no work, is regarded as a marker of status. Thusly, many people will build a life exclusively on the shoulders of other people, relying wholly on the welfare system.

Of course, the drone mentality stands in sharp contrast to the mores of the society in which the welfare system originated, while it has its roots in the patriarchal conception. It was always taken for granted that people shall have acquired an earned income before deciding to marry and settle down. The system wasn't meant to be used in this way. So the excellently thought-out system, produced by the "sages" of social welfare, is now working against the very foundation of society. This example is, after a fashion, a counterpart of the Robber Chih story and illustrates finely Chuang-tzu's point.

Remarkable, also, is the way in which the old notions of "fair and just" have acquired a much different meaning. Today, it is viewed as a "right" to get one's provision, along with food on the table. It has come to be viewed as only "fair and just" that everyone should be able to beget many children. After all, rich people have recourse to all the goods of life, so why shouldn't everybody on earth? Originally, it was only regarded as "fair and just" that they who should be rewarded are the ones who make good use of their moral and intellectual resources, and workers who have made their daily toil, whereas the drone is justly being reduced to simple circumstances.

Somewhat oversimply, the latter standpoint portrays the original and patriarchal view of justice and fairness, originating with the juridical State. It is remarkable how, in many a Western society, justice and fairness have come to mean something very different. European countries are today bound by law, national and supranational, to accept more and more immigrants. They are also expected to support third world nations in a way which only passivates and corrupts these states, and enables the inhabitants to have even more children. Moreover, within the EU, parties are working toward a new legislation that makes the European states legally bound to provide a certain level of welfare for the individual. The individual shall have the legal right to always have all his fundamental needs satisfied. This is matriarchy with a vengeance. Another appropriate term is socialism, although it doesn't bespeak the underlying unconscious motif, as being described in this article.

Creative mythology

The fundamental question remains, the one which O. E. Klapp asks above, namely what it means to awaken the symbolic consciousness. How can we tackle banal materialism, and its inherent destructiveness, which lurks behind its splendid facade? In Joseph Campbell's terms, our society is lacking in the expression of "creative mythology." The ability to relate to symbolical existence - in an alternative reading; spiritual presence - has a wholesome effect on the individual, and therefore also on society. The "Dream Time" of the traditional Australian aborigine is a parallel spiritual realm, transcending and overlapping material reality. An individual always stands in relation to this sphere. In fact, mankind has always lived in a semi-spiritual world. Later in history, the book religions came to condemn the creative and flexible relation with the symbolical realm, while the symbol had once and for all been fixed in the creed. Today's culture is become permeated with bookishness - in this respect the book religions have succeeded.

Historically, only the mystic has been able to lead a symbolical life, provided that he shut his mouth about it. Discursive information has a much higher status than non-discursive symbolic imagery, an imbalance which it is urgently necessary to rectify. Rejecting literalism and rationalism is today becoming more and more urgent, if we're not going to end up in a collective neurosis. Campbell (1968) discusses this problem:

[When] the symbolic forms in which wisdom-lore has been everywhere embodied are interpreted not as referring primarily to any supposed or even actual historical personages or events, but psychologically, properly "spiritually," as referring to the inward potentials of our species, there then appears through all something that can be properly termed a philosophia perennis of the human race, which, however, is lost to view when the texts are interpreted literally, as history, in the usual ways of harshly orthodox thought.

Dante in his philosophical work the Convito distinguishes between the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical (or mystical) senses of any scriptural passage. Let us take, for example, such a statement as the following: Christ Jesus rose from the dead. The literal meaning is obvious: "A historical personage, Jesus by name who has been identified as Christ (the Messiah), rose alive from the dead." Allegorically, the normal Christian reading would be: "So likewise, we too are to rise from death to eternal life." And the moral lesson thereby: "Let our minds be turned from the contemplation of mortal things to abide in what is eternal." Since the anagogical or mystical reading, however, must refer to what is neither past nor future but transcendent of time and eternal, neither in this place nor in that, but everywhere, in all, now and forever, the fourth level of meaning would seem to be that in death - or in this world of death - is eternal life. The moral from that transcendental standpoint would then seem to have to be that the mind in beholding mortal things is to recognize the eternal; and the allegory: that in this very body which Saint Paul termed "the body of this death" (Romans 6:24) is our eternal life - not "to come," in any heavenly place, but here and now, on this earth, in the aspect of time.[...]

"The true symbol," [Thomas Merton] states again, "does not merely point to something else. It contains in itself a structure which awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and of reality itself. A true symbol takes us to the center of the circle, not to another point on the circumference. It is by symbolism that man enters affectively and consciously into contact with his own deepest self, with other men, and with God."[...]

The poet and the mystic regard the imagery of a revelation as a fiction through which an insight into the depths of being - one's own being and being generally - is conveyed anagogically. Sectarian theologians, on the other hand, hold hard to the literal readings of their narratives, and these hold traditions apart. The lives of three incarnations, Jesus, Krishna, and Shakyamuni, will not be the same, yet as symbols pointing not to themselves, or to each other, but to the life beholding them, they are equivalent. To quote the monk Thomas Merton again: "One cannot apprehend a symbol unless one is able to awaken, in one's own being, the spiritual resonances which respond to the symbol not only as sign but as 'sacrament' and 'presence.' The symbol is an object pointing to a subject. We are summoned to a deeper spiritual awareness, far beyond the level of subject and object."

Mythologies, in other words, mythologies and religions, are great poems and, when recognized as such, point infallibly through things and events to the ubiquity of a "presence" or "eternity" that is whole and entire in each. In this function all mythologies, all great poetries, and all mystic traditions are in accord; and where any such inspiriting vision remains effective in a civilization, everything and every creature within its range is alive. The first condition, therefore, that any mythology must fulfill if it is to render life to modern lives is that of cleansing the doors of perception to the wonder, at once terrible and fascinating, of ourselves, and of the universe of which we are the ears and eyes and the mind. Whereas theologians, reading their revelations counterclockwise, so to say, point to references in the past (in Merton's words: "to another point on the circumference") and Utopians offer revelations only promissory of some desired future, mythologies, having sprung from the psyche, point back to the psyche ("the center"): and anyone seriously turning within will, in fact, rediscover their references in himself. (Campbell, 1968, pp.264-66)


A personification of the dark feminine has been missing in symbolical consciousness. Symbolic poverty has allowed the spirit of the feminine to unite with matter, by means of a projection. The projective content is what underlies the materialistic and bodily fixated welfare state, and the inflation of banal conscious values.

Moral infantilism is conditioned by a psychological mother dependency. The natural darkness of existence is not heeded as a genuine and quintessential aspect of reality. Hence a naively idealistic consciousness finds suffering and the diverse forms of evil unacceptable. Moral weakness implies an incapacity to carry suffering in one's own heart, and it follows that its existence must be suppressed or engineered away.

Goodness is not coupled with instinct anymore. From the original Christian "morality of the heart" the Western world has gone over to an ethics by decree. This tells us Europeans, for instance, that we must take responsibility for all peoples of the earth, and also allow them shelter and free provision in our countries. But there is no feeling adaptation in this, it is a mere ethics of the intellect, wholly lacking in instinct. The intellectually moralistic aspiration that all suffering can be eradicated, is a form of inflation, which will have dire repercussions on society in the future.

In fact, the historical Jesus of Nazareth renounces riches and an opulent lifestyle. Instead he advances a frugal lifestyle. It's a mystery how his message has turned into its opposite, so that we now think that helping people out of poverty is the ideal Christian conduct. As is obvious from the scripture, Jesus saw material privation as a prerequisite of spiritual advancement. But we destroy people's chances of meaningful lives. We don't need to assume the role of benign worldly benefactors, spreading the gospel of materialism and worldly goods. This is downright anti-Christian.

A reappraisal of the natural morality of Chuang-tzu is necessary, and a return to the original teachings of Jesus. The latter taught us not to resist evil. He warned against the all too human tendency, the inflation actually, to pursue shadow problems which are not one's own. The conceited notion that evil can be conquered by means of rational designs is refuted both by history and the teachings of Chuang-tzu. Purportedly, the many forms of evil and destructive forces can be conquered by rational engineerings, also interventions in other countries. Perhaps it would have been better to leave Saddam Hussein be, instead "putting a little drop of consciousness in and then retiring". Eventually, the snake will eat itself up.

The discursive intellect, fixated as it is on information, has overruled the symbolic and ritual way of relating to reality, also in the realm of ethics. To remedy this, we must begin to take non-discursive imagery seriously. What's necessary is an heightened awareness of the unconscious, hence to overcome the naive mentality coloured by literalism, base concretism, and overly strong attachment to the material and the bodily, indicative of an unconscious dependency on the mother complex.

Our inability in the symbolic realm has divested us of the rituals, well-known to primitive man, by which the child is taken up into the fellowship of men, thus acquiring manhood and full human value. Comparatively, in the present era, enormous resources are invested in the prematurely born child. Since it has all the bodily organs, a rationally determined ethics accords the foetus with human value. Every technological means of prolonging its life is employed, while the consequences of physical and mental debility are disregarded.

Historically, thanks to our relation with symbol and ritual, mankind has always been able to deal with moral problems of this kind. Today, machinelike rationality goes to any length trying to evade the problem of death, and the gruesome side of life on this earth.

© Mats Winther, 2009


[1] Sin transference: the notion of sin transference did not begin with the moral conceptions of the world religions. It derives from the archaic functioning of the psyche. Sin, in its original meaning, is a survival of the animistic era. It is almost like a substance, and therefore it is a neutral concept. It is what destroys wholeness and health, and what causes devitalization. The transfer of sin to a victim, like in the human sacrifice of the innocent, has a therapeutic function in that the participators are relieved of their own failings, which are transferred to the victim. [BACK]


Campbell, J. (1968) Creative Mythology. Penguin Compass.
 -------     (1973) Myths to Live By. Bantam Books.
Chuang-tzu   (1996) The Book of Chuang-tzu. Penguin. (transl. Palmer/Breuilly.)
Franz, M. L. v. (1980) Alchemy - An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Inner City Books.
 -------     (1993) The Feminine in Fairy Tales. Shambala. (orig. publ. 1972.)
Klapp, O. E. (1969) Collective Search for Identity. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
Marcuse, H.  (1965) 'Repressive Tolerance' in A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Wolf, et al., 1970). Beacon Press.

See also:

Winther, M. (2008) 'An intrusion of matriarchal consciousness' (here).

 -------    (2008) 'The Blood Sacrifice' (here).

 -------    (2006) 'The Psychodynamics of Terrorism' (here).

Copyright © Mats Winther, 2009


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Colloquium On Violence & Religion, official website for exploration, criticism, and development of René Girard‘s Mimetic Theory.

Psychosynthesis Online, on the Psychosynthesis & Transpersonal Psychology of Roberto Assagioli.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, on the hierarchy of needs model of Abraham Maslow.

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